Chaos might have defined the year that was 2020, but that turmoil helped business leaders learn a new skill that will serve them well in the years to come.

The world has always been unpredictable, but the pandemic has made this reality even more apparent. When the crisis began, fear and uncertainty spread like wildfire. Old business models crumbled overnight, and organizations scrambled to create new policies while transitioning to remote work.

The leaders who thrived during the pandemic were the ones who chose the best possible course of action while remaining flexible. Those leaders demonstrated strategic agility, which will be the defining leadership skill of this era.

Leaders who demonstrate strategic agility have a clear vision. They use data to predict how situations might unfold, finding opportunities amid crises. They embrace decisiveness and improvisation to take full advantage of new developments.

Strategic agility is a habit — not an annual retreat. It’s a type of intuition that leaders develop and then deploy in the face of changing market conditions. Great leaders encourage this agility in others and understand that an organization is only as agile as the people who power it. Strategically agile organizations are ready to pivot and innovate, and they’re able to define clear strategies based on future trends.

Operational Agility Works, But Only for a While

At the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis, operational agility was king. It allowed companies to accommodate lockdown orders and navigate customer fears. These adaptations included shifting to a remote workforce, developing an online presence, and offering curbside pickup and contactless delivery.

But as the pandemic drags on, operational agility is no longer enough. Every organization made operational changes, which meant they no longer offered a competitive advantage. Many businesses found they simply couldn’t survive long term if they couldn’t conduct business as usual.

Companies that outperformed their peers last year were those that saw beyond the crisis. They didn’t just consider which measures would get them through Q2 and Q3 of 2020. Instead, these strategically agile organizations chose a course of action that would serve them well in the long run and allow them to capitalize on market changes.

One surprising standout was Peloton. Although sales of home-fitness equipment surged during the pandemic, one might have expected the maker of luxury spin bikes to struggle during a recession. Instead, Peloton capitalized on the shift in people working out from home — with or without a spin bike.

The company offered a 90-day free trial of its online fitness classes, including yoga, high-intensity interval training, and more. Once their free trials ended, some users inevitably kept their memberships (and their new workout habits). Peloton chose a forward-thinking course of action that provided plenty of flexibility.

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Why Strategically Agile Companies Succeed

Being decisive and innovative is useful for leaders in any industry. Here are the three ways you can lead with strategic agility:

1. Communicate strategic priorities.

For your company to thrive in an uncertain environment, every team member must understand your organization’s strategic priorities. This might seem obvious, but one CEO who surveyed her senior leadership team found that only a quarter could name three of the company’s five strategic priorities.

The reason so few teams achieve alignment is that communicating priorities is a three-part conversation. First, you must explain what a priority actually means. Otherwise, concepts like “invest in infrastructure” become meaningless corporate jargon. Second, explain why those priorities are important and how they impact the bottom line. Finally, offer explicit instructions for how employees can uphold those priorities in their current roles.

As a leader, your behavior must also reflect the organization’s strategic priorities. That includes how you spend your time. To manage this, I like to look at my calendar periodically and evaluate whether my daily activities reflect my priorities.

2. Focus on practices that build resilience.

While alignment on strategic priorities will help your organization move closer to its goals, resilience will help your team cope with stress and recover from any setbacks. Research has identified a clear link between resilience and mental health. Unfortunately, pandemic-related stress has taken a toll on many adults’ mental well-being. In 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that anxiety among adults had tripled while cases of depression had quadrupled.

The good news? Resilience interventions like coaching can reduce mental distress symptoms by an average of 30%. In addition to keeping your workers healthy, improving resilience will help them adjust to small-scale stressors such as workplace challenges.

Presence and focus are two of the largest factors that contribute to resilience. You can help your employees cultivate these attributes through mindfulness practices like meditation. Goal-setting can also help bring things into focus, but be careful to make sure those goals are attainable.

3. Upskill your workforce to prepare for change.

Leaders who have mastered strategic agility have a clear view of where things are headed. They know what their customers will need a year from now, and they have innovation plans. However, upskilling is also crucial to a company’s survival. You might have delayed professional development during the pandemic, but your workforce could lose its competitive edge if you don’t invest in employee education.

Many leaders had to make cuts last year, and professional development funds may have taken a hit. If that’s the case, audit your workforce to determine which skills are the most pressing. Hard skills in data analysis, blockchain, cloud computing, and artificial intelligence are already in high demand — but so are soft skills like emotional intelligence and critical thinking. Focus your efforts on developing one or two skills that would make the most significant impact.

Even without a budget for professional development, you can still help employees grow and learn. I know of one leader who selects a topic each week and sends out an informational video for employees to watch. These topics are part of an ongoing curriculum, and a different employee leads a discussion on that topic each week.

Strategic agility helps leaders thrive by providing a framework for decisive action and innovation even when — or especially when — the future is uncertain. By communicating priorities, building a resilient workforce, and developing skills, you can implement strategic agility in your organization.

About the Author

Kerry Goyette is the president of Aperio Consulting Group, a corporate consulting firm that utilizes workplace analytics and implements research-based strategies to build high-performance cultures, and the author of “The Non-Obvious Guide to Emotional Intelligence.” Follow her on Twitter: @thinkaperio.

Featured image via Pixabay